It's been called the battle that changed the war in Vietnam. The savage, five-day melee that erupted at two separate locations in central South Vietnam in November, 1965, was the first full-on engagement between American and North Vietnamese troops, and transformed a police action in a faraway land into a full-blown war. Adapted from the acclaimed book We Were Soldiers Once... and Young, by Lt. General Harold G. Moore, commander of the first battalion to fight and die in the Ia Drang river valley, and UPI reporter Joseph L. Galloway, who witnessed the whole thing, director Randall Wallace's loud and grisly bloodbath tells half the story: The battle around the landing zone dubbed "X-Ray." Wallace, who also wrote the script, spends the first half hour giving his soldiers sentimental backstory, something Moore and Galloway's clear-eyed account did very well without. Instead of valuable historical context for American involvement in Indochina, Wallace gives us Moore (played with twinkling bonhomie by Mel Gibson) at home at Fort Benning, Ga., putting his five kids to bed, canoodling with his wife (Madeleine Stowe) and assuring youthful Second Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), who's just had a baby with his own wife (Keri Russell), that being a good soldier makes a guy a good father. Then it's off to Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry. Their orders are simple: Find the enemy and kill them. Rather than make the trip overland, 395 U.S. troops are flown into X-Ray by helicopter pilots like Major Bruce "Snake" Crandall (Greg Kinnear), a military innovation that saved time but ensured that everyone knew the Yanks were coming. The 1/7 is almost immediately surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers, and despite the expert leadership of Moore and his second-in-command, Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (a grizzled and very good Sam Elliott), this small patch of ground, roughly the size of a football field, quickly becomes a hell on Earth. Like BLACK HAWK DOWN and the first 20 minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, this is war movie-making as a purely sensory experience: Wallace is so determined to realistically simulate combat that the big picture is lost. Who these brave men were and why they fought disappears under the usual clichés, while the astounding acts of courage that occurred at Ia Drang are lost to the dust and din.
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